The Early Years: Reflections on Interactive Performance

The following account is a fictional version of that night. I wrote this several weeks in advance of the event, and it appeared in the desert on the front page of the Sunday morning edition of the Black Rock Gazette.


Reports of a breakdown in talks between Burning Man and HELCO have sent shock waves through world financial markets. HELCO stock, valued at $10,000 per share at the end of yesterdays trading on the New York, Tokyo, and Black Rock exchanges, has plunged to a minus value. Many investors, caught in panic selling, have leapt to their deaths. Danger Ranger has issued a community advisory directing all playa participants to stay clear of the towers at Central Camp.

The long expected acquisition of Burning Man by HELCO began to unravel on Saturday night when several thousand playa activists stormed a HELCO stockholders meeting conducted in downtown Black Rock City. Chanting, “Hell Co! Hell No!” the angry mob overturned Satan’s throne, sending HELCO’s board of directors scurrying for cover. The outraged participants proceeded to storm Hell’s Gate. In the ensuing confusion, the City of Dis — Satan’s Citadel — was destroyed, and HELCO Tower, world headquarters of the supranational conglomerate, was burned to the ground. Property damage totals in the billions. There are no reports of injuries.

As a result of Saturday’s turmoil, the acquisition of Burning Man by HELCO has been canceled and merger talks with Heaven, scheduled to take place later this year, have been indefinitely postponed. The Archangel Gabriel, Heaven’s chief negotiator, was unavailable for comment. Sources report, however, that Heaven’s higher-ups, alarmed by yesterday’s disturbance, fear a public relations backlash.

“This is only a beginning!” vowed Bishop Joey, a leading Burning Man dissident. Clad only in a soiled burnouse, the disheveled firebrand spoke to a scattered group of supporters early this morning. “Tonight we will celebrate!” he stated, “Tomorrow we will take this fight straight back to the heart of corporate America!” As of this writing, however, it appears that Hell itself will survive the demise of its parent company. HELCO has collapsed into a morass of insolvency, but Hell, enriched by a bumper crop of suicides, seems likely to remain with all of us for a very long time.

The following year, 1997, witnessed our last large indoor performance. We had charged the public for these homemade extravaganzas. They were fundraisers. The talent they employed was volunteered, but the work required to produce them was immense. After this, we ceased producing urban shows of this magnitude. We concentrated on the desert, instead. We no longer needed to publicize ourselves in San Francisco and could now rely on ticket revenue from the Burning Man event. The title of our performance that year was Mysterium. It was subtitled The Secret Rites of Burning Man. This was accompanied by a memorable motto: “Let’s put the cult back into culture!” It focused on the idea of fertility. I’d intended to carry this theme forward onto the playa, but events of that year – chiefly, a pitched battle with authorities in Washoe County – forestalled these plans.

I had been reading literature about the many Mystery religions of the ancient Greco-Roman world. The participatory character of these ancient religious movements intrigued me. Earlier in the year, I’d written an article for Gnosis, a San Francisco-based magazine. Here is a portion of that piece:

Throughout the classical period of Western civilization, there existed a diverse spiritual movement that is known as mystery religion. The mystery cults, as they were called, arose within a new world order. The conquests of Alexander and the subsequent spread of Roman rule throughout the Mediterranean world had greatly expanded the scope of classical civilization. Stretching from the shores of the Atlantic to the Caspian Sea, it occupied a vast cosmopolitan domain, teeming with commerce and housing the ideas of many cultures. Immense allocations of men and monies had displaced entire populations. The citizenry of the empire, uprooted and heterogeneous, now congregated in large urban centers, and within this sophisticated and self-conscious setting, huge societal gaps now separated rich from poor and urban from rural populations. It was a world, in other words, remarkably like our own.

Arising from this complex milieu, the mysteries derived from diverse sources. Traditions drawn from many cultures flowed like tributary streams into the great Mediterranean basin, bringing with them the worship of Isis and Osiris of Egypt, Mithra of Persia, and the Anatolian Great Mother. Yet the mystery cults had much in common. All were grafted to the stalk of agrarian fertility festivals — relics of a prehistoric past– yet were essentially urban in character. They typically employed theatrical parades and pageants to attract a pool of individuals who might share little else in common, and they were organized as lodges. Membership within a cult implied a broad equality with fellow mystai or initiates.

Ceremonies often took the form of pilgrimages. Participants removed themselves to sacred sites. Mystai sang and danced to flutes and cymbals; others wore masks and sported strange attire. Such celebrations might take many days, and while they lasted, class distinctions were dissolved. “Persons who are being initiated into the mysteries throng together at the outset amid tumult and shouting,” wrote Plutarch of the Eleusinian Mysteries celebrated near Athens, “but when the holy rites are being disclosed and performed, the people are immediately attentive in awe and silence.”

Such initiations were performed by firelight at night in enactment of a central myth of death and rebirth. They were often highly theatrical performances and, unlike the tribal traditions from which they sprang, placed unique emphasis on personal choice. Many people probably attended the festivals simply to have fun. Intense, ecstatic, and immediate, these rites did not stress doctrinal belief, but valued outward show and inward feeling. Aristotle states that the mysteries weren’t about a teaching; they were initiations focused on direct experience.